Now that the PhD is done and dusted, and now that the builders – restumpers, sanders, painters, shed builders, water tank installers etc – have finished extending the life of the house we live in, the garden has reached the top of the To Do list. Its current state was dictated long ago by our need for a small-scale football/cricket pitch and battlefield on which small children, resident and visiting, could use up a little bit of excess energy. Now that the child is thoroughly grown up, the ‘lawn’ – a balding patch of soil with clumps of grass, clover, violets, oxalis, chickweed and other more or less desirable plants – is no longer essential.
The sunniest part of the lawn, which used to be burnt into extinction on the first hot day every summer, has now been smothered under a raised garden bed. We filled it with a mix of soil bought from Inner City Garden supplies in Brunswick (they filled the back of a small truck with a couple of cubic metres, and delivered it down the narrow lane to our carport – tipping it with enormous care just inside without damaging the door – bravura performance), plus pea straw, cow manure, chicken poo, compost and I’ve forgotten what else. Everything grows well. There are a couple of in-ground worm farms in there, disposing of a careful selection of kitchen scraps every week.
That leaves the shady area. It is bordered by beds which have only partly worked: underfed, not much sunlight, uncared for and weedy.
Over the last few years, I’ve been visiting other people’s gardens courtesy of the Open Garden Scheme, in transition now after the abolition of the national program. One of them stood out: Karen Sutherland’s Pascoe Vale garden.
It’s a small shady jungle of food plants, chooks, beehives, fish and all sorts of passing wildlife, which even spills out onto her nature strip. She is a trained horticulturalist who used to work at the zoo and built up her soil with interesting manures including elephant. She is now a professional garden designer and consultant. Paralysed by the hopeless state of our back yard, I asked her to come round for an hour and think aloud about where to go from here.
It was an intense hour, and it took me days to process everything she came up with. She thinks a little bit of lawn is a good thing, especially if you’re thinking of getting a dog, as it’s soft on human feet and on paws and cooler in summer. Looking at our odd-shaped space, she could see that a smaller, round lawn could be surrounded by a mix of direct plantings and smaller round raised beds. She explained that a shady fence may actually be a good place to grow some climbing berries, and that there are now varieties which are almost thornless. I asked tentatively about avocadoes, having heard of people growing them in Melbourne but never having seen one here; she was enthusiastic, but stressed the need to prepare the soil extremely well, digging a metre deep if possible, adding manure and compost, and leaving it all for a month or so before planting. Apparently avocadoes quite like a bit of shade. She talked about less familiar plants: strawberry guava, youngberry.
Here is the messier side of our garden; you can see the shadow of the big plum tree on the north side. Newly painted weatherboards, new tin fence, picturesquely aging garden bench which may have a few years left in it but not more, untidy planting beds edged amateurishly with bluestone which came from one of the last bluestone dunnies in Fitzroy, in the garden of a house formerly owned by friends. They used the stone to build raised beds and we got a trailer load. There’s an apricot tree which we planted on our son’s first birthday, which is going just fine and gives us loads of jam every year, and a climbing rose on the carport to the left. Madame Alfred Carriere, which is almost always out of control but quite beautiful on its best days.
There is an extremely badly planted Peace rose, which spends its days trying to run away from home. Mostly visible from the lane. We are going to have to move it somewhere nicer: a huge job for the middle of winter.
There is also a smoke bush (cotinus corrygia?) which I planted after a trip to the UK, where we housesat a garden that had one: a massive round dense purple bush which I loved. Ours couldn’t cope with a hot day in Melbourne, so I moved it to an area where it would just get a bit of morning sun, and it now hasn’t got enough light.
Look at this scrawny thing. Karen suggested, very cautiously, that maybe it could go.
It was a relief to be told this – to be given permission to admit to failure! Also on the hit list are a badly shaped correa underneath the apricot tree, a banksia rose which regularly gets into our neighbour’s gutters, a native climber with blue flowers that has never done very much and could make space for a raspberry, and a very small lime tree already half dead after a citrus wasp attack.
The circle marked with garden edging on the non-lawn is one possible position for the smaller, better cared-for lawn. It’ll leave a lot of space for planting.
One or two things she suggested were not quite right for us, or for my half-worked-out ideas about this particular back yard. I don’t want to develop interesting differences in the level of the garden, if it means having to protect the side fence from raised soil. There will have to be other ways of doing it: more freestanding raised beds, perhaps, or some tall wicking pots (I have a couple of oil drums ready for conversion), which amounts to the same thing.
And I realised that if we aren’t expecting a professionally smooth small lawn, I don’t need to buy in turf, because I have all the materials to hand to patch up the existing one. I can take healthy chunks of grass and soil from the areas of lawn which are going to go, and just stick them into the bald bits of the lawn we’re keeping. It’s the right time of year to do this, and we’re having some lovely wet weather. By spring, with a bit of TLC, I reckon it’ll all look fine. Sort of.
I’m thinking that to begin with, we’ll frame the lawn with peastraw bales, as opposed to the permanent garden edging that Karen recommended. Some friends did this as a temporary seating place in their back yard, and it lasted for years. It would have the advantage of being easily adjustable if we get things a bit wrong.
And I’m thinking that we can run a little path through the new wide planting areas, using our small mountain of bluestone. Crazy paving or stepping stones.
This is what happens when you get advice from someone who really knows what they’re doing. It clears your mind. It shows you how to get started, and makes space for a bit of your own thinking. It’s not about control.